THE Selangor Fire and Rescue Department is still battling fires in the Raja Musa Forest Reserve since the first one broke out last month. Two more new fires have since been spotted in different locations, in the dry and drained peatlands near the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. They can be quelled once and for all. Its become a perennial problem despite it being preventable, some experts tell SARAH SABARATNAM …
ONE would think that given the annual haze episodes since the early 1990s, someone would have by now found a solution for it.
Yet it seems we have learnt nothing from the hazy days of our recent past.
At most, we have improved on our methods and equipment to control the forest fires that cause the haze, and only after the flames had gone off in a rage.
But what about preventing them in the first place, apart from increasing surveillance and fining those who conduct open burning?
This unfortunately is really no solution, as the majority of haze-causing fires are actually burning peat, which, according to Che Asmah Ibrahim, air division director for the Department of Environment, is more complex to handle and requires special solutions.
Peat fires are hard to control and almost impossible to put out, says Faizal Parish, from the Global Environment Centre.
Slapping fines on some Ahmad, Ah Kau or Samy is not going to stop the cycle from repeating itself annually, and the Raja Musa Forest Reserve in Hulu Selangor is a good example.
According to Selangor Forestry director Nik Mohd Shah Nik Mustafa, virtually the same spot has been bursting into flames every year since 1997.
“We have come to believe that it is the most natural thing in the world, that the dry season is to blame.
On the contrary, peat fires are not caused by dry weather,” says Faizal. They are due to two specific factors.
First is the drainage of peat land.
“In its natural state, peatland is like a huge lake with slowly decomposing organic matter in it. Because 90 per cent of peat is water, it will not burn as it is always wet,” says Faizal.
“It will only burn if the water has been drained out to allow activities like logging, mining or agriculture.”
(inset) Faizal: Dry weather is not to blame
The second cause of peat fires are development activities which take place in land adjacent to a peat swamp forest.
“The peat swamp forest may be within a forest reserve but if development comes right up to its boundary, problems may arise.
“In most of the past cases, the fires start in such adjacent areas and then spread into the forest. If the peat forest is dry due to draining, it will easily catch fire.”
In the case of the Raja Musa Forest Reserve, the same spot catches fire every year and each time, the damage spreads a little bit more. This year 700ha went up in flames.
On closer inspection, one will find that there are canals running near the boundary of this fire-prone area.
“The canals were built by loggers when the area was being logged back in the 1980s and 90s, says Nik Mohd.
Once the forest was gazetted as a reserve in 1990, no new canals were allowed to be built. However, more than 500km of old canals remain, which were not filled up or blocked by the loggers when they left.
This means water has continued to drain out of the peat, making parts of the swamp as dry as kindling certain times of the year.
After the first fire broke out there in 1997, lalang grew over the peat and since then these fields of tall grass simply become highly flammable in the dry season.
As there is no buffer zone around the forest reserve boundary and as there is no control over the impact from development in areas adjacent to the forest reserve, it is easy for a fire to spread from outside into the forest through dry patches of peat.
According to Nor Hisham Mohd, Selangor Fire and Rescue Department assistant operations director, this is a recurring problem.
In Raja Musa, there are various development activities on the boundaries of the forest reserve.
An old tin mine lies south east of the forest and its pit is lower than the level of peat in the forest.
According to the Forestry Department, this has resulted in water continuously being drained out of the forest reserve.
Then there are the illegal settlers on the east side of the forest reserve next to Ladang Hopeful, who have encroached into the reserve and built drains to dry out the area in which they have settled.
This means more water flowing out of the peat. The settlers also clear land through open burning.
In the dry season, the peat becomes drier still.
As the peat is very deep up to 10 metres in some places, says Nik Mohd the fire goes underground and is often very difficult to detect and put out.
The scenario in Raja Musa is replicated elsewhere in Selangor, and rest of the country.
Dr Salmah Zakaria, the Department of Irrigation and Drainage director for corporate development believes that any effort to prevent peat fires has to address these very obvious problems.
“And when you talk about preventive measures, the approach has to be a holistic one,” she says.
“It has to look into the genesis of the peat and the reasons why the deposit, in its approximately 6,000 years of existence, only started to catch fire rather recently.
“We have to conclude, perhaps, that one of the reasons is it has to do with mans interference in its ecosystem which is naturally wet.”
Salmah also notes that a high percentage of peat fire cases occur in areas which were burnt at least once before.
This is because the previously burnt areas were not rehabilitated, restored or managed to prevent them from becoming literally hotspots during the dry season.
FIFTEEN years ago, there were no peat fires in Malaysia. This is a recent phenomenon but one that can be eliminated through the adoption of some measures.
Obviously, rehabilitating previously burnt areas takes precedence over all other efforts.
Next, says Faizal Parish of the Global Environmental Centre, the water level in peat swamp areas must be kept high, particularly during the dry season. This requires closing of the canals.
Establish a buffer zone around the forest which is principally aimed at preventing water from flowing out of the swamp.*
On this, the state government, which has jurisdiction over land matters, must work closely with all relevant agencies under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment so that development activities that are detrimental to environmentally sensitive areas like peat swamps can be controlled.
Faizal suggests that the authorities educate the public about the peat swamp forest, starting with the fact that it is a lake.
“If people are aware of this, they will think twice about building houses there. Its a lake with a lot of dead vegetation in it. Whatever you build will sink.”
There are currently at least two projects in Selangor where houses are being built on peatland, including one next to the Raja Musa Forest Reserve.
* The Selangor Forestry Department is considering damming up all the canals which lead out of the forest reserve in Raja Musa.
However, the department is concerned that the tin mine will still present a problem as sand mining activities there are causing water to seep out from underground. The Forestry Department has no jurisdiction over the mining land.
A short-term solution, according to Faizal, would be to build a bund between the forest reserve and the tin mine to prevent water seepage.